Stay on the Path (Third in Sermon Series, From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales: the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths)

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I.
    Stay on the path.  That seems like good advice for a number of reasons, even though if brave souls didn’t ignore the advice and become trailblazers they and their contemporaries could never move ahead or see progress in any way.  
    There’s a brand new television series you just have to watch.  It debuted last Sunday evening.  It’s called “GCB,” which stands for “Good Christian Belles.”  Oh my, Pam Cummings, it’s set in Texas, and much of the storyline involves the church to which most of the main characters belong.  You’ll see things on that show you’ve never seen in real church:  gossip, envy, backbiting.  It’s sort of like “Desperate Housewives Go to Church.”  
    The sure-to-become-one-of-my-favorite shows stars Kristen Chenoweth who’s the most gifted singer in the church choir and who manages, therefore, to steal all the best solo opportunities from the rest of the faithful choristers.  Her prominent costar is Annie Potts who now is of an age that she is playing the mother of younger women in Chenoweth’s age bracket.  My, my.  It seems like last month when she a young divorcee in my favorite show of its decade, “Designing Women.”  In the new show, Potts plays a filthy rich widow who’s at least a little bit better than anyone else she knows or meets.  
    When I saw Annie Potts show up on the screen last Sunday evening, I immediately was taken back in my memory to this time of year in 2005 when her son, then 23 years old, didn’t return home when expected from a hike.  He and a friend told their families that they’d be back home about dinner time on a Sunday, but they weren’t.  Hour after anxious hour passed–no sign of the men, no word from the men.  The good news is that they were found a day later.  The weather at dusk on Sunday had taken a sudden turn for the worse so the hiking pair decided that rather than staying on the icy trail, they’d ease off the trail and find a place to camp for the evening.  No cell phone signals, of course; that’s what they did.  
    The next morning, Ms. Potts’s son and his friend made their way back to the main path and walked to their vehicle.  Even with slippery conditions prevailing on the mountain road, they intended to get back home that day.  They found a note on the Range Rover they had driven from local police saying that they, the police, were at that moment trying to find them as they had done to no avail in the darkness of the previous night.  Well, they got home unharmed.  
    We’ve heard of some sad stories with very different endings, haven’t we?  We’ve heard news stories of hikers lost and never found, and we’ve heard stories of hikers lost whose bodies were later found.  
    Staying on the path applies metaphorically as well.  There are so many self help books out now, they make many people prefer the misery they’re suffering over the misery of reading through one more clever writer’s shallow recipes for career success, for becoming a millionaire, for being a super parent who never makes any bad calls as a mom or dad, and even for how to work it so that God will be obligated to give you whatever a selfish heart desires.  Those overbought books aside, there often are some general principles for reaching important life goals that can appropriately be considered “staying on the path.”  
    For example, Lindon, my ex-wife, and I decided when baby number one was one the way that we’d bypass any book or article that had rules or lists of what to do or what not to do if we wanted to be effective parents.  I’ve told many of you before that we agreed on one book to guide us, and it was a philosophy of part of parenting.  The book offered no steps to take per se, but rather was like a heart-to-heart conversation with a very experienced and caring author, Dorothy Briggs.  Her book was titled, Your Child’s Self-Esteem.  
    I know you’ll be shocked when I tell you that armed with our goal never to do anything to impair our children’s ability to think well of themselves, we still made mistakes.  Considering her record and mine, I won’t tell you who made the most mistakes.  Seriously though folks, we were too busy early on just trying to be good parents.  As far as the kids were concerned, when one of us failed we both lost ground.  When the Apostle Paul was writing his magnificent essay on love he noted that one of the characteristics of love is that love keeps no record of a loved one’s wrongs.  After all, good parenting isn’t a contest; it’s a joyful, albeit challenging, team effort, and what really matters at the end of the day is the wholeness and wellbeing of your child or children.  All this to say, staying on the path for us as parents meant making decisions consistently that were intended to help our sons’ self-esteem flourish.
    Staying on the path for modern American politicians clearly means prodding in every direction until a nerve in the populous is hit and then never leaving it.  There are those who are still harping on the issue of the validity of our President’s birth certificate.  That is such an old hat issue now, but he seems to be able to laugh it off.  When the truly amazing performer, Betty White, celebrated her ninetieth birthday recently, President Obama congratulated her and went on to say that he didn’t really believe she was 90; therefore, he wrote to her: please produce for me a copy of your birth certificate.  Good sport.  
    What does staying on the path mean for you at this stage in your life in any area of your life that you want to contemplate?   

  • Some couples in a marriage or other serious relationship have to walk through some tough patches along their path to be able to hang onto a love connection that they know in their hearts is worth saving whatever the demand.  Someone here or someone in our congregation’s circle of love and concern may have recently gotten a medical diagnosis that, apart from the disease or disorder, is debilitating.  It’s going to take more grit and guts than she or he is confident of having in order to withstand the treatments and wring every last possibility out of life; that’s a tough, tough path with which to have to stay.  

Khalil Gibran challenges us bluntly:  “March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.”

II.
    The much adapted and watered-down story that many parents still read to their children was, originally, no tale for children at all, and I would say that even in its watered-down form the story is still not for younger children.  When the Brothers Grimm first discovered the tale being told among German peasants, it was a bawdy morality tale for adults only!  This was true of many of the stories the Brothers happened upon as they attempted to complete their intended mission, which was to collect original samples of German folklore and preserve those stories for posterity.  Somehow they discovered, and I have no idea how, that if they made the tales G-rated rather than PG-rated or R-rated these stories, which they’d set out NOT to alter in any way, brought them a tremendous cash flow and tremendous notoriety.
    They are mistakenly remembered as creators of children’s stories.  The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, were lawyers, librarians, and philologists.  None of the stories included in their collections were written by them.  Most were discovered among the German peasants and adapted for children; the Brothers were responsible for the adaptations of the stories, but not the originals themselves unlike, say, Hans Christian Andersen who wrote from scratch all the stories published in his collections.  
    There are four basic types of folklore:  myth, legend, wonder story (early on, erroneously referred to as “fairy tale” though fairies appear in very few of them), and urban legend–the newest of the four types.  Wonder stories are properly classified by the German word, “Marchen,” which refers to stories like “Little Red Cap,” later, “Little Red Riding Hood,” that are set among fictional peasants, have magical or supernatural elements in the plotlines, and/or have animals functioning with human traits or visa versa.  The wonder stories often begin with the words, “Once upon a time…,” and end with the key character or characters living happily ever after.  Often there is a hero or heroine who saves the day and causes the central figures to come out OK, if only by the skin of their teeth.
    In the earliest versions of “Little Red Cap,” the “girl” wasn’t a little girl at all, but a young woman—a mid-teen or late-teen, perhaps.  Before getting in bed with the wolf who is all dressed up like Grandma, she gets naked.  After losing her virginity, she ends up dying in that very bed.  Moral of the story:  men can be wolves and can hurt you seriously!
    In later versions, a woodsman comes to Red’s and Grandma’s rescue by slicing the wolf open so Granny can escape, and the moral is adapted:  a good man can “save” a woman from her dumb moves.  In some more recent versions, Red escapes from the wolf on her own thus suggesting that women can save themselves from life’s complications.
    Wherever the story wound up, it always began with a warning from Red Cap’s mother, “Stay on the path.”  Now, as Red learned, you can stay on the path and still run into trouble.  No path is permanently safe or protected, but we all have a much better chance of remaining safe and getting where we want to be or where we’re supposed to be if we stay on the path.  
    The moral of the story could have been, “Take your mother’s advice when she is trying to protect you from harm” as long as you’re still under the age of 50.  The moral of any version of the story could also have been a restatement of Mom’s advice, “Stay on the path.”  Veering off the path is a sure fire way to stumble over a rock or a fallen tree; a definite decision to risk getting tangled up in briars, vines, and underbrush; a willingness to get lost; and a way of volunteering to face a much greater chance of happening upon someone in hiding who doesn’t want to be found.
    Under the category of “best practices,” we’d have to say that Little Red Cap’s mother shared some great advice with applications for many levels of living.  Sometimes staying on the path is about make safety choices based on what is tried and true; sometimes staying on the path has to do with using common sense or with living according to the moral standards or theological principles we’ve claimed as our own.  President Obama said, and I don’t know in what context, “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”  I completely agree with him on this, but I don’t fail to notice–and I’m sure you see it clearly too–the two huge conditions signaled by the word “if.”  It isn’t one or the other of these that will get us to the point of progress; rather, both of the conditions must be satisfied.  
    IF we’re walking down the RIGHT path.  There are more paths available to those of us who live with true freedom of choice than we can’t even count most of the time, but only one or a few may be RIGHT or, at least, RIGHT for us.  So, our President says that we can make progress if we’re on the RIGHT path AND IF we’re willing to KEEP WALKING.  Getting to the RIGHT path and standing still probably won’t accomplish much of anything.  Once we’re on the RIGHT path and can confirm that, through whatever means on which we rely to make such determinations, we have to begin walking and KEEP WALKING.
    There are three quite troubling statements, Christian scripture scholars often call comments or pronouncements like these “the hard sayings of Jesus,” attributed to Jesus in this little vignette in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9:

As Jesus and his disciples were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Child of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another Jesus said, “Follow me.” But that man said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; as for you, go and proclaim the empire of God.”  Another man said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the empire of God.”
 

To be an authentic follower of Jesus, any one of us must get on the RIGHT path, fix our gaze on our destination as a farmer does when plowing straight rows for the vegetable garden or at least look in the proper direction if we can’t see the destination itself, and then KEEP WALKING.  Jesus says, KEEP WALKING, stay on the path, and don’t look back!

III.
    I’d say that Jesus’ most remembered teachings were his parables, and among the numerous parables the most widely known and retold are the parable of the Lost Son, which is more often called the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Today, we again invite into our imaginations the highly influential, though fictional, character who has no name and is, thus, remembered by an adjective attached to his nationality, “The Good Samaritan.”
    When Jesus’ first hearers heard this story, they were tense and perhaps angry.  The hero of the story is not a Jew, but an unnamed arch enemy of most Jews, a Samaritan.  I don’t know if the Jews who lived when Jesus did hated Romans, their captors, more than they hated Samaritans or the other way around, but relations between Samaritans and Jews weren’t any where close to civil.
    Dr. Barbara Reed who happens to be a nun is a New Testament scholar and a parables specialist.  She believes that to understand a parable paralleling in any way how Jesus’ first hearers heard it; one, two, up to three parts of the parable that threw the hearers off balance intellectually and emotionally have to be isolated.  She refers to these off-putting parts of the story as points of disequilibrium.  I haven’t looked in her books to see how she interprets this parable, but I see three points of disequilibrium in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
    First, a Jewish person is leaving Jerusalem after worshipping at the great Temple, and he leaves Jerusalem by way of a road that everyone knew better than to travel alone.  He clearly didn’t stay on the path that someone traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho would have stayed on, even if it meant a longer journey.  This road was known to be a favorite stretch of ground for thugs and thieves.  If you had to travel that road, you wanted to be in a group large enough to keep a thief or two or three from daring to hold you at knife point and take everything you had and leave you beaten up or dead, being violent for the sake of violence–nothing else.  He or they already had all your money and maybe your outer garment too, if it were appealing to him or them.  From the get-go Jesus’ hearers were saying to themselves, “So this is going to be a story about this clueless guy who is bound to run into trouble.”  The hearers were not at all surprised when the man, a pious Jew no less, is robbed, beaten up, and left by the side of the path for dead.  They didn’t like hearing that part of the story, but it is not one of the points of disequilibrium because they were already braced for something like when Jesus, as he tells his parable, throws in the fact that the Jewish guy must have left his brain back at the Temple because he heads out on this very dangerous road all by himself.
    The second point of disequilibrium is when some clergy types are heading as a troupe up to Jerusalem to go to work.  Staffing the huge Temple required several clergy with various responsibilities to be on hand any time the Temple was open, which must have been most of the time.  They pass by their wounded and dying compatriot, their fellow Jew, and do nothing to help him.  In particular Jesus calls attention to a senior priest and an associate priest seeing clearly what was going on with the man lying beside the path and quite intentionally doing nothing to help.  Jesus’ hearers were thrown off because Temple clergy whom they highly respected were the bad guys in the story.  Either those who offered no help to the man who was already dead as far as they knew didn’t want to touch a dead body because that would have made them ritually impure and therefore unable to serve at the Temple, or they just didn’t give a rip; they only cared about people when they were on the sundial, when they were getting paid.  
    The third point of disequilibrium comes up in the story when Jesus has in his parable a despised Samaritan, as many Jews would have viewed any and all Samaritans, helping the Jewish man who would most certainly have died without his help.  I’m assuming that Jesus pictured the Samaritan as traveling that road with other Samaritans since smart folk didn’t travel that road alone, as I’ve said.  One wonders, even though the story is fictional and created by Jesus to use in his lessons and sermons, why the Samaritan or Samaritans would have been on the road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem; they certainly wouldn’t have been welcome or safe in the Jewish holy capital.  Trying to pick a parable apart as I just did is precisely what you don’t do if you want to get Jesus’ parabolic message so forget I brought that up.
    Anyway, because of the Samaritan’s goodness and kindness and generosity, the Jewish man is tended to.  He gets well and is able to embrace life once again.  That’s a wonderful ending to the story, but one of the nagging parts of the parable that won’t go away no matter how the plot winds up is the fact that there would have been no trouble for the guy in the first place had he stayed on the path he was supposed to have stayed on if he had to travel away from Jerusalem alone.  Suddenly, the pious Jewish guy, who is virtually overlooked by most Christian scripture scholars and preachers, eases into picture as a reminder that staying on the path is part of what may keep us from harm.  
    Sadly, as I’ve said, we all know people who have made wise choices and stayed on the path and still gotten hurt.  Little Red Cap evidently stayed on her path literally, but she certainly got off the path of common sense when she told a stranger all her personal business including where she was going and such.  Remember, in the original version of “Little Red Cap,” things don’t end well; Red is raped, evidently violently, and she dies in the bed of violence.
    The unfortunate Jewish guy who was so graciously attended to by someone whom he otherwise thought of as real enemy was a lucky guy.  He got a second chance at life when probably many others like him died to the side of that road, somewhere between Jericho and Jerusalem.
    We may not die physically if we get off the path of the moral standards we’ve claimed, but we may die emotionally if we do.  We may not die physically if we get off the path of what we truly believe theologically, but we may die spiritually if we do.   
    In 2010, Professors Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of Tufts University, completed a study and released the results under the title “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.”   Result of the study in summary form:  “They are not alone.  They are not rare.  They are not unusual.”  The professors had all sorts of confirmation that there were plenty of clergy in this situation, but they didn’t realize at the start how difficult it would be to gather their data because most of these clergypersons are, understandably, closeted.  Once a network of contacts was established, the concerned and inquiring professors found a few who were willing to talk at length about their plights; most, however, wouldn’t take the risk.  After all, they were ministers who had died inside because they’ve been climbing into a pulpit every Sunday for years to preach what they don’t believe–just to keep a job, just to appease a congregation.  Some of these clergy hope that one day they will somehow be able to find their way back to the seeker’s path of integrity and have their souls come alive again; others hold out no such hope.  They see themselves as lost souls, beyond the help of anyone.  
    This is a word from the study itself:

 

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks.  As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don’t they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

How tragic.  I know you get the picture, and I know that you’re sympathetic.  What I want to make clear is the realization that what these preachers secretly owned was not an indication that they’d veered off the path; the fact that they have to pretend to be who they’re not IS proof, however.  No path can be right for you if it requires you to be or pretend to be something or someone you’re not.
    This part of the sermon is not a secret, subtle confession on my part to let you in on my change in theological perspective.  I’ve tried not to believe in God a few times in my life, but it didn’t work for me.  That way of thinking made no sense to me though I fully respect those of you, and you know I do, who wrestle with this issue and find yourselves unable to come up with any confidence or assurance that there is a God as described by this person or confessed by that person.  You’ve stayed on the path regardless of the fact that the search keeps coming up empty for you.  
    I’m certainly not bragging when I say that, nor do I see myself as a spirituality giant.  I see myself as a seeker and spiritual struggler.  I can’t tell you who or what God is exactly beyond the fact that God is love. Having said that, though, I must also say love that is God is of such depth it’s beyond human comprehension.  
    I do get a glimmer or a flicker of truth here and there, I think, and I hold onto it as long as I can.  Often, the truth I see is only enough to remind me that I have to stay on the path regardless of how rough it gets.  I cannot be tempted to take a path of known danger even if it does promise to get me more quickly, if I can survive, from where I am, Jerusalem let’s say, to Jericho, to where I believe I need to be for now–until it’s time for the next leg of the journey.  Amen.

 

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